Seed Libraries: Treat Law as Damage, Route Around It

Recently the story went viral of the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture threatening a Mechanicsburg seed library on the grounds that it was in violation of regulations intended to thwart the danger of (ahem) “agri-terrorism.” To comply with the regulations, the library would have to confine itself to distributing only store-bought seeds and not distributing any saved in previous years. Who wrote those infernal regulations, Monsanto? The story further highlighted the already blindingly obvious symbiosis between the federal and state departments of agriculture and agribusiness companies that have our food supply under corporate lockdown.

Well, as it turns out, the battle doesn’t always go to the strongest. David still has a few rocks in his arsenal after all. In an article at Shareable (“Setting the Record Straight on the Legality of Seed Libraries,” Aug. 11), Neal Gorenflo, the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Center for a New American Dream report on an impressive job of legal research he did into the language and judicial interpretation of similar statutes and regulations around the country, and finds there are significant potential loopholes to be exploited.

I generally argue, along with C4SS comrade Charles Johnson, that an ounce of circumvention or evasion is worth a pound of working within the system to change the law:

If you put all your hope for social change in legal reform … then … you will find yourself outmaneuvered at every turn by those who have the deepest pockets and the best media access and the tightest connections. There is no hope for turning this system against them; because, after all, the system was made for them and the system was made by them. Reformist political campaigns inevitably turn out to suck a lot of time and money into the politics—with just about none of the reform coming out on the other end.

Far more can be achieved, he says, at a tiny fraction of the cost, by “bypassing those laws and making them irrelevant to your life.”

Lobbying against draconian copyright laws like the IP chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and ACTA has done a lot of good, but encryption, proxies and improvements in file-sharing technology have done far more. Before ACTA had even come to a vote, several Firefox extensions became available that can simply bypass domain names seized by the federal government and go straight to their numeric IP address. That’s how people access Wikileaks’ various national sites and mirrors around the world.

In other words, to paraphrase a famous quote, treat the law as damage and route around it.

But sometimes the best way of doing that is by using the law itself as a weapon. The Wobblies and other radical unions have a name for this: “work-to-rule.” Considering the stupidity of the rule-making process in authoritarian hierarchies, there’s no finer way to sabotage an entire company than by obeying workplace rules literally. The same applies to government laws and regulations. A law may have been passed with the obvious intent of protecting proprietary capitalist seed companies from free and open source competition. But regardless of intent, once a policy is put into writing it is limited by its own language. Like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters, the destructor is subject to the limitations of the form it’s embodied in.

And as the authors find, the actual language and subsequent judicial interpretation of seed regulations around the country comes in pretty handy as a monkey wrench. Taken literally, virtually all such rules apply at most to the distribution of seed through commercial sale, trade or barter — that is, when a reciprocal exchange of value for value has taken place that involves an explicit or implied contract. Although those who take seed from the Mechanicsburg library are encouraged to return it out of their crops, in order to perpetuate the library, there is no contractual obligation to do so. The only requirement for seed distributors as such in Pennsylvania is to pay a $25 licensing fee. The authors suggest the seed library might do just this, continue to operate as before, and wait for the state (no doubt spurred by the seed companies behind it) to make the next move. And if it does, see what happens when it’s tested in court.

(Shareable has created an open Hackpad for anyone who wants to share the results of their own research into particular state seed regulations).

Of course if this fails and the courts back up the seed companies’ interests, it will be time to take the circumvention a step further (I’m speaking only for myself here, not the authors — they suggest combining the experiment above with lobbying, about which I’m “meh” at best). The file-sharing movement’s response to the shutdown of Napster was to take on a more dispersed, genuinely P2P character, eventually abandoning hosting on fixed servers altogether. With brick-and-mortar seed libraries shut down, organic gardeners might use apps or sharing websites to match up people with matching seed supplies and needs and let them take care of the rest. If the corporate state pushes back hard enough, it might be necessary to relocate the sharing sites to servers in countries outside the DRM Curtain and for seed sharers to deal with one another under cover of encrypted email.

They point to another interesting bit of information. The IRS has acknowledged that time banks are distinct from taxable barter exchanges for much the same reason he argues the time bank is exempt from seed regulations. There is no contractual quid pro quo; although there is an informal “exchange” of favor for favor, there is no legal obligation to return a favor. Now, as the capital goods required to produce a growing share of our consumption needs become smaller and cheaper, and affordable and scalable to individual households or multi-family sharing networks, it follows that a large share of our total production to meet our own subsistence needs will drop out of the cash nexus and off the state’s radar screen, and into self-provisioning through the informal and gift economies. Even on a larger community scale, where some more definite coordination is required through something like Tom Greco’s mutual credit-clearing networks, the system can likely operate under cover of a darknet with transaction costs of enforcement exceeding the benefits.

So technology itself is taking a growing share of our productive lives outside the purview of the corporate-state nexus, and transferring them instead into the realm of voluntary association and mutual aid that Kropotkin, in his Britannica article on Anarchism, set forth as the defining characteristics of anarchy. By seizing on the advantages offered by such technologies, we can evade corporate domination and build the world of our own desires.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory